Western European Late Cold War Rifles


By James Martinreau,

The experiences of the Vietnam War had a profound effect on the transition of the standard rifle cartridge in NATO from 7.62x51mm to 5.56x45mm. It was found that the M14 was too cumbersome and had unmanageable recoil when fired in the full auto mode. This combined with the need to carry more ammunition convinced the United States military to adapt the M16 as its primary rifle. Due to the success of the M16 and the adoption of the 5.56x45mm NATO round, Western European nations were obliged to redesign their rifles to adopt this new standard cartridge. Two archetypes that fit this mold are the FN FNC and the HK93. Both these rifles were developed along similar timelines.

Despite the popularity and success of the FN FAL chambered in 7.62x51mm, the Belgian manufacturer, Fabrique National, recognized the potential and rising popularity of the 5.56mm cartridge in military applications. In the 1960’s, FN began development of the Carabine Automatique Légère (CAL) that in many respects was similar to the FAL. Notable differences between the two include the CAL’s use of a rotating bolt design better adapted for extracting the 5.56 cartridge. Another is the placement of the charging handle on the right side of the firearm. Ultimately, only 12,000 units were produced as FN found that it was too expensive to manufacture and too unreliable for military use.

Undaunted by the failure of the CAL to reach the market, FN began working on what was to become the Fabrique Nationale Carbine (FNC). The initial version of the rifle was rushed to compete in the NATO rifle competition to be a less expensive alternative to the M16. This version was rushed to meet the deadline for the competition. Consequently, it performed poorly and was overlooked until being reworked. This reworked final design began production in 1978. The FNC’s system takes inspiration from the AK series of rifles as it is a gas operated, rotating bolt system. The FNC is also compliant with NATO STANAG magazines making them attractive as a collection piece for owners of AR style rifles.

The FNC found success as they were adapted by the Belgian military as well as those of Sweden and Indonesia. The Swedes made modifications that have manifested itself as the Bofors AK5.  Modifications include the removal of the 3-round burst option, enlargement of the trigger guard, a thicker forend and finish better adapted to the harsh Swedish climate. The Indonesian version is the Pindad SS1. Indonesian models are modified to better handle a jungle climate. The Pindad was initially available in three basic versions as introduced in 2005; Standard rifle SS2 V1, Carbine SS2 V2 and Para/Sniper SS2 V4. It is now also available in a Subcompact “SS2 V5” variation, first revealed in 2008.  Both these variants are still in use by their respective militaries today.

Like the Belgians with the FAL, the Germans enjoyed great success with HK’s G3. The simplicity of the design as well as being less expensive to produce than the FAL or the M14 led to the adoption of the rifle by many militaries. All told, more than 50 countries adapted the G3. It is still produced under license in nations such as Greece, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran and Portugal to name a few. Like Belgium, Germany was obliged to adapt to the new cartridge being adapted by NATO.

The first HK model chambered in 5.56 was the HK33, which entered production in 1968. Unlike CAL or the FNC, HK did not have to change the operating system to accept 5.56mm rounds. It still featured the delayed blowback operation found in the original G3. The HK33 found some success in the foreign market as Malaysia, Chile and Thailand have adopted it for their militaries while it is being produced under license in Turkey.

The semi-automatic version of the HK33, the HK43 was introduced in 1974 to target the civilian market. The differences between the two were minimal. In order to save money, H&K used the same fire control group that went into the HK33 models, but with some modifications. The auto-sear was removed from the fire control group, as well as the trip lever, to prevent automatic fire. Moreover, the grip frame housing was modified to prevent the selector lever from going into the full-auto position. The one other modification H&K made for the HK43s was to mill off the trip ledge on the bolt carrier assembly.

The HK43 was rebranded to the HK93 not long after the 43 went into production. It has been said that two possible reasons for the rebrand was to change the public’s perception  of the rifle from a paramilitary rifle to a sporting rifle. Another possible reason was Heckler and Koch taking charge of U.S importation. Whichever the reason for the rebrand, the two models are essentially identical with interchangeable parts. For the modern collector, both the HK 43 and 93 are highly coveted models. It should be understood that the magazines for HK models, unlike the FNC, are compliant only with their respective models. Original HK magazines in 5.56 for the HK43/93 can often be found for as much as $80 although Pro Mag does produce a magazines for these models for around $20.

Both the FNC and the HK33/43/93 were successful evolutions of the FAL and G3 after NATO’s adoption of the 5.56mm round. They are proven designs that have been used around the world and adopted for use by the nations of many militarizes. For the civilian collector, they are coveted models that are often found for around $4,000 – $5,000. D4Guns has an example of each of these models that can be found for sale on our website at D4guns.com.